Sunrise brought an end to the rain and once again mist shrouded the field. But as the jittery picket firing grew to a steady rattle it was clear that today, finally, the great showdown was under way. Lee was still waiting for McLaws and Anderson who were soon on the field. McClellan for Franklin also nearing the field. Neither commander was happy with the odds. But now the game was on.
The Battle of Antietam opened at dawn (roughly 5:30 am) when the Hooker launched his assault from a triangular patch of woods on the Poffenberger farm called the North Woods due south along the line of the Hagerstown Pike into Jackson’s roughly 7,700 defenders. Directly in front of Hooker sat Mr. Miller’s 30-acre cornfield; beyond it was the high plateau upon which sat the Dunker Church, easily visible against the backdrop of the West Woods behind it. This high ground would be his objective. In formation stretched out like a bow, Hooker’s 8,400 men in blue charged out of the North Woods. A member of Jackson’s staff remembered: “The Federals in apparent double battle line were moving toward us at charge bayonets, common time, and the sunbeams falling from their well-polished guns and bayonets gave a glamour and a show at once fearful and entrancing.”
Heads down and bent to the side, like men braving a hail storm, the Yankees moved south and straight into the pre-sited fire of Confederate cannon from Stuart’s horse artillery to their right firing in enfilade from Nicodemus Heights and four batteries commanded by Col. Stephen D. Lee in their front arrayed across the high ground south of the Cornfield. Nine I Corps batteries opened up counter-battery fire from the slopes north of the North Woods and another four batteries of long-range 20-pounder Parrot guns two miles away rained in shot and shell from across the Antietam Creek. The fierce artillery duel shook the very foundations of barns and houses for miles around and casualties on both sides mounted quickly, prompting Antietam to be remembered by Col. Lee as “artillery hell.” One Louisianan would write home, “I thought, Darling, I’d heard at Malvern Hill heavy cannonading. But I was mistaken!”
As the I Corps moved forward Hooker spied Rebels within and just behind the Cornfield and brought up cannons to pump cannister and solid shot into the high crops filled with the enemy. Men were knocked down in rows and the carnage was ghastly. The world erupted in pandemonium as soldiers clashed, often with clubbed musket, in the now bloodied field. The Cornfield became a vortex of smoke, flashes and violence. The high corn and drifting battle smoke hanging low in the morning mist made command increasingly difficult and it became ever more challenging to discern friend from foe in the mayhem. Reinforcements from both sides poured into the area and slashing volleys sliced into the lines, taking down rows of men at a time and cutting the once high corn down to the ground. Just as the field seemed in possession of one side, the other would counter-attack and reclaim the grizzly land now strewn with dead and wounded men, rebel and yank intermingled as a grim testament of the chaos and ferocity of the fighting.
Eventually the Union advantage in numbers began to take its toll and the Confederates were gradually pushed south and out into the open. As the I Corps moved through the devastated cornfield one Union trooper recalled: “I thought I had seen men piled up and cut up all kinds of shape, but never anything in comparison to that field.” A dangerous gap developed in Jackson’s line and the tactically astute Hooker aimed for it. The Dunker church seemed within his grasp. And then a line of 2,400 men in grey and butternut burst out of the West Woods, screaming the rebel yell. These were the men of General Hood’s division. Hood was honoring his pledge to Jackson that he would drop everything and come at once if needed. Now he was needed and his men hit the I Corps with a single-minded purpose attributed to their anger at having had to abandon their breakfast, grab their rifles and come running. Their first volley was as the 6th Wisconsin’s Col. Rufus Dawes described it, “like a scythe running through our lines.” Hood‘s men then charged ahead with reckless fury towards Hooker’s staggering formations.
Now it was the Union men’s turn to flee back into the Cornfield they’d just lost so many men in taking. Hood’s men pursued and it seemed that nothing could stop the wave of Rebels from completely routing the I Corps. But when the Rebels themselves emerged from the northern edge of the Cornfield, they were greeted by I Corps artillery, particularly Gibbon’s battery, which checked their advance at a range of just forty yards. Unable to withstand the shot and canister ripping into their lines like shotgun blasts, Hood’s men were forced to retreat to the safety of their own guns, leaving the Cornfield in Union hands.
Hood’s men paid dearly to honor Jackson’s request. When asked by Lee where his division was, Hood replied “dead on the field.” They would eventually retire to the position just beyond the West Woods from whence they’d come, their rolls tragically thinner than they’d been just that morning when they sat down to prepare their coveted hot meal that was not to be. But they had succeeded in temporarily blunting the Union assault. Hooker’s corps in turn had suffered casualties of nearly 3,000 (more than 1/3 of those it had fielded just two hours before). Hooker himself was wounded in the foot and off the field, leaving Meade to command the remnants of the I Corps…a unit now suited only for holding the line.
The Union torch would pass to General Mansfield’s XII Corps just arriving on the field through the East Woods. What greeted them when they reached the Miller farm was a scene of indescribable destruction. Rufus Dawes was a veteran of almost every major battle of the Army of the Potomac including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. Yet he would insist that “the Antietam Turnpike [the western border of the Cornfield] surpassed them all in manifest evidence of slaughter.” Another Union veteran would remember: “The Cornfield was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.” It is estimated the Cornfield changed hands as many as fifteen times. Over 8,500 men would lay either dead, piled in heaps amidst the tangle of twisted cornstalks and debris of war, or wounded, writhing in pain on the blood-soaked ground or suffering in quiet agony under the hot September sun amidst the surreal devastation all around them. There are many cornfields in the Civil War, but “The Cornfield” will always be farmer Miller’s and the horror scene it became in two hours of the most savage fighting of the war…and yet the Battle of Antietam had just begun.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here: